Recently, my church discussed the possibility of dropping the picnic to which all the Sunday School members and their families are invited. The general consensus was that families were too busy nowadays. Not worth the work and the fuss, trying to fit it into their kids’ busy schedules, they concluded.
Just after WWII when I was a kid, summer hadn’t truly arrived until the day of the church picnic. My three sisters and I anxiously awaited that special day of fun games, highlighted by a delicious meal. Following years of rationing, I remember the dish-to-pass picnic dinners being grander than I believed possible.
Today, busy schedules keep families from getting together. Back then, polio was a formidable enough danger for my parents to keep us at home. After the girl across the street died from the disease, I never went to a swimming pool again. The only time I went to the city park a block from our house was to ice skate. I guess Mom figured that germs couldn’t live in the cold.
The church picnic was somehow a gigantic exception to her rule of nearly total isolation. Maybe she believed healthiness as well as cleanliness was next to godliness.
In the week before the annual picnic, my first duty was to find the sports equipment. The softball bats and balls only saw the light of day at the church picnic. Our suburban yard wasn’t big enough for a game. We dug out Dad’s glove (so old it was stiff and thin), our two balls, and two bats.
One year I decided to get in some batting practice at home. I took the bat I liked best and the newer ball into the backyard. Standing with my side to the house, I threw the ball into the air and tried to connect with the bat, hopefully sending the ball toward the windowless wall on the alley side of the parlor.
I hadn’t planned on how much noise the ball would make inside when it hit. Mom appeared at the back door to tell me to stop before I knocked all the stucco off the house. She startled me just as I was swinging. The bat swung high and sent the ball low--straight toward the basement window.
The ball crashed through and rolled directly into the coal room. Having burned most of the coal over the winter, the room was nearly empty by summer. The softball picked the dirtiest corner in which to come to rest. I tried to clean it up with soap and water, but the dirt only soaked into the leather while the water made it stiff. On top of ruining the new look of the ball, I had to work long and hard to pay for the broken glass.
Next, all our efforts turned to the food. That was before the bright plastic thermal chests were available. Picnic basket meant exactly that--a basket to carry everything one needed, generally covered with the cloth which would later cover the wooden picnic table.
Our family was fortunate enough to have a metal food carrier that had a box on one side that Mom filled with ice. A much larger version of the ice box was still the only kind of refrigeration in several houses in our neighborhood back then. The three elderly ladies that lived next door had a wooden ice box. The semi-weekly arrival of the ice man was cause for celebration in the summer. He’d often give us a chunk before he swung the giant block onto the leather pad that protected his shoulder for the trip into their house.
Mom always needed all day Friday just to prepare our share of the food for the Saturday picnic. Mom was famous for her potato salad. She cooked huge pots of potatoes until they were tender, but not soft. Then while they were chilling in our refrigerator, we washed and chopped up carrots, celery, green and red sweet peppers, onions, radishes, and even cucumbers. When we were done, a rainbow delight of colors filled the table.
The potatoes were cool by then, and they had to be peeled and cut up. When all the peeling and chopping was done, Mom mixed the salad together with the dressing in her enormous ten-loaf bowl in which she made bread.
The best part was getting to taste the salad before she carefully packed it into quart canning jars that she lined up in the refrigerator until time for transport to the Forest Preserve the next day.
The other food we brought included homemade rolls, ham and egg salad for sandwiches, deviled eggs, home-canned pickles, and gallons of fresh lemonade.
At the Forest Preserve, the men lined up the picnic tables in a couple long rows with two or three perpendicular to them for the buffet. By one o’clock, the tables were loaded with each family’s offerings. No one went hungry, and there was rarely any food left.
The rest of the day was filled with softball, running and sack races that included prizes for the winners, and more than one checkers game. By the time the magical day came to an end, I was always too tired to stay awake for the ride home.
Church picnic day was always the greatest of days. But I know now that getting ready for that special event was half the fun. It was one of the infrequent occasions on which all four sisters, whose ages vary by a wide span of years, and our parents worked together toward a common goal of fun and fellowship.
I’m hoping my church will reconsider the picnic idea. If they tried it again, they might find themselves creating memories to last a lifetime, too.